Editor's note: Susan Weich's column, which formerly appeared only in St. Charles editions, is now running regionwide in the Metro section on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Susan tackles suburban stories and issues, and she welcomes your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As long as dangerous wild animals are caged at largely unregulated facilities, tragic accidents like the tiger attack in Warrenton are going to keep happening.
Last Sunday, Jacob Barr was mauled by one of 44 tigers at Wesa-A-Geh-Ya, an animal farm operated by Ken and Sandra Smith since the mid-1980s.
The Smiths seem to have started the compound with the best intentions. They wanted to provide a haven for abused or abandoned animals.
That plan deteriorated when they began breeding animals there. Many of the tiger cubs that were sold to others ended up back in Warren County when the new owners couldn't handle them.
The Smiths voluntarily gave up their exhibitor's license in 2003 after the USDA started investigating potential violations that could have resulted in sanctions or confiscation of the animals. That got the USDA off their backs.
It also stopped the Smiths from being able to collect donations from visitors who came to see their animals, and funding for the facility slipped to about $1,200 a year from $40,000 annually.
Taking care of the animals has become difficult because of the lack of funding. Donations of meat and volunteers to help tend to the animals have dropped off as criticism by animal-rights groups and public scrutiny of the operation increased.
The Smiths have been placed on probation for violations that included failing to keep cages properly locked and failing to register some animals.
Unfortunately, Barr, 26, of Warrenton, knew nothing about the facility's troubled history. He is friends with one of the volunteers at Wesa. The two men had been camping together, and when Barr's friend said he was going to clean the cages, Barr agreed to help.
Barr's dad, Jim Barr, told me that his son had no idea he was in any danger because his son's buddy fed the tigers all the time.
"But the very first thing that happens is that a tiger jumps the fence and gets Jacob down," Barr said. "It was holding him down by his leg and tearing his calf off, eating it right in front of him."
The younger Barr had to have part of his leg amputated. The tiger was killed.
Aside from the horror, the attack raises serious public safety concerns about these animals pacing back and forth next-door to a community with a growing population.
"We're dealing with a volunteer organization holding large numbers of wild animals in cages that, for all practical purposes, were designed to hold dogs," said Warren County Sheriff Kevin Harrison. "What happens if they get out, and they're roaming our community?"
The Smiths say that none of the animals has ever escaped from the compound. The only person who has been attacked in the past is Sandra Smith. But their reaction to Barr's mauling showed poor judgment and is troubling in several ways.
First, Harrison said, the Smiths put Barr, a new volunteer, in harm's way by letting him go near the tigers. Second, the Smiths misled authorities by telling them a stray pit bull attacked Barr.
Harrison said it will be difficult to work with the Smiths, who have proved they can't be trusted.
Local and state officials say they are ready to look at regulations for Wesa and other privately owned animal exhibits.
Officials in Warren County said they would consider an ordinance addressing ownership of nondomestic animals in the next month.
On the state level, Rep. Mike Sutherland, R-Warrenton, who has been trying to set standards for places like Wesa for five years, is hopeful that publicity about the mauling will help a law get passed this session.
These are good starts, and a way to help authorities keep an eye on places like Wesa. But the state needs to ban these types of operations too before more animal exhibits move here.
Fortunately, the Smiths say they now will shut down and are working to place their animals in other exhibits. As long as conditions are acceptable at the new homes for the big cats, that would seem to fix Warren County's problem.
It's too bad that all of this is coming too late for Barr. Critics have complained for years that Wesa posed a threat.
Barr now faces a long recovery. The county and state might have prevented the attack if only they'd acted sooner.
Carole's letter to the reporter:
Great job on the article about the need for better laws in MO to end these reckless practices.
As you deduced, Wesa-A-Geh-Ya is no sanctuary. The US Fish & Wildlife service specifically states that accredited sanctuaries do NOT breed. As someone who has been involved with saving big cats for the past twenty years, I can assure you that there are no legitimate breeding and release programs for big cats and never will be because there isn't habitat for them to survive and raising and releasing captive born cats isn't possible without tremendous danger to the public.
Wasn't this facility part of Operation Snow Plow? Tim Santel, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's law enforcement office in Springfield, Ill., was named Officer of the Year in 2004 for his lengthy undercover investigation of the illegal killing of endangered species, specifically tigers, leopards, snow leopards and the commercialization of their meat, hides and other body parts. The investigation, dubbed "Operation Snow Plow," lasted more than six years, covered more than six states and resulted in the conviction of all 17 defendants (16 individuals and one business) charged with violating several federal wildlife protection laws. Combined, the defendants' sentences have resulted in 80 months in federal prison, 52 months home detention, 2,200 hours of community service, $75,000 in fines and $226,000 in restitution to the Fish and Wildlife Federation's Save the Tiger Fund. One of the convictions was that of a well-known "sanctuary" in MO that was selling their "rescued" lions to be served in restaurants.
The questions I would really like to see exposed are the following:
Why is is that "sanctuaries" and those who profess to "love" the big cats are so violently opposed to legislation that would end the private trade in them as pets and collectibles? My goal is that places like Big Cat Rescue no longer need to exist and my path to that goal is by asking for legislation that bans the breeding, sale, trade and collecting of these great cats. As a result, I may be the most hated person in the big cat "industry" and yet most of the people who spend so much time trying to discredit me with their lies and insinuations claim to be in the rescue and sanctuary business. Why isn't ending the abuse the most important goal of those who claim to be saving big cats from abuse?
Why are big cats being born in sanctuaries when there isn't enough sanctuary space for all of the unwanted big cats?
Why is contact with big cats allowed when a bill in Congress has died last year and stalled this year that would prevent it? (HR 1947 Haley's Act)
Where do all of the babies from last year go? When you look around at all of the places who advertise baby lions and tigers, where do they all go for the next 20 years?
It costs Big Cat Rescue between $5,000 and $7,500 per year to provide proper care for a big cat. Multiply that by the number of big cats in these pseudo sanctuaries and roadside zoos and then compare it to their annual budgets.
Lack of accountability. Most of these places hide behind their USDA licenses as if it were a badge of honor, but if you visit the abusers page on www.911AnimalAbuse.com you will see a repeating pattern of facilities having USDA violations reported year after year, for six years in some cases, before the USDA takes action. Meanwhile the USDA keeps renewing their licenses. Why does USDA renew licenses each year of facilities that have failed to meet even the more minimal of standards? To give you an idea of how low the standards are, the size of cage for a tiger only has to be big enough for the cat to stand up and turn around.
What does it cost the tax payer? When less than 1/10th of one percent of the public owns exotic animals, why do tax dollars fund entire governmental departments to regulate an industry that is unneeded and inhumane? What are the actual costs to tax payers for all of the reporting, licensing, enforcement and the clean up costs after these places allow escapes or they go belly up?
62% of the people polled say that seeing big cats in cages has done nothing to cause them to donate to conservation in the wild. Almost all of the places that use big cats for income will cite that noble cause as their excuse, and yet how much of the money they raise is actually put to work in saving the habitats?
The tiger is the best example of how this doesn't ring true. No big cat is more commonly kept in zoos and back yard menageries and yet with less than 4,000 left in the wild and one being poached per day, it is obvious that this great cat will disappear in the next few years. All of the cats who were born in cages for the last hundred years did nothing to stop the onslaught. I believe that the practice of keeping cats in cages has actually led to their demise in the wild. If you can have the convenience of driving a few miles to see a tiger in a cage, then why protect them half a world away where you may never see them?
Thanks again for getting to the real heart of the matter. Only a ban would have prevented this and only a ban will prevent this kind of tragedy again.
For the cats,
Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457
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Comments by others:
I testifed for all bills introduced to the state and the first year furnished over 200 photos of this facility & the dangers involved. The cubs were being raised in Ladue, and all over the city and county. One photo showed a 5 month old tiger in a Ladue home. When the board members walked out in 2002 and the owner admitted to selling dead & live animals into the Endangered Animal Trade we thought it would be the end. Instead the Attorney General did nothing and allowed them to continue to operate as a nonprofit corporation. When the USDA permanently revoked their license the only action taken by the AG was to make them change their name from Wesa Zoo to plain Wesa and they were still allowed to "acquire & care for animals for education" but could not "legally" exhibit. The cubs being raised in 2002 were not returned to the owner. One tiger cub ended up near Six Flags where the people kept him, unknown, until he was three years old in their backyard. This is an excellent article except for the fact these people started out as breeders and boasted in a news article in 1998 that "they were better at breeding than the St. Louis Zoo", it was never about rescue. I testifed at the hearings each year and did not find out until 2006 that Warren County had the necessary rules that would have prevented these people and a friend who also had tigers in his backyard from breeding, selling & expanding. The County refused to acknowledge this even to our State Representative. Channel 4 did a story in 2003 about the tiger owner/breeder in a subdivision and how the neighbors were afraid to let their children play in the yard and still the County refused to ask the owners to get the proper permits. I submitted a complaint in 2007 and the commissioners would not act on it but finally agreed in 2008 that the owners should be required to obtain permits for all changes started in 1995 (see their comments on this date). Too little, too late for this man.